ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A half dozen police chiefs and sheriffs argued Tuesday in a packed Capitol hearing room that Minnesota isn't doing enough to protect against gun violence, kicking off three days of hearings on a host of new proposed limits on firearm ownership.
Hundreds of people from both sides of the debate swarmed the Capitol office building for the hearing, jamming the committee room and several overflow areas a day after President Barack Obama visited Minneapolis to tout his federal gun-control proposals.
"For a whole host of reasons, we're not keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who shouldn't have them," said Dennis Flaherty, executive director of the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. He was specifically backing a bill to require background checks for all gun purchases in Minnesota, cracking down on the sale of guns at shows, online or through unlicensed, private dealers.
That was just one of a dozen proposed limits on firearm ownership under review in the hearings in front of the House Public Safety Committee. The first day drew hundreds of gun owners and activists sitting alongside activists seeking tougher rules on who gets guns. While gun rights supporters wore buttons that read "Self Defense is a Human Right," activists on the other side had stickers that read, "Minnesotans Against Being Shot."
With Democrats controlling the Legislature, new limits on gun access have their best shot at the Capitol in a number of years. But the debate could expose divides between urban Democrats, who represent areas where new gun limits are popular, and rural Democrats from areas with high gun ownership and less support for serious curtailments on the ability to own weapons.
"The way to stop gun violence is with another gun," said Rep. David Dill, a Democrat whose sprawling district includes most of northeastern Minnesota's Arrowhead Region.
Dill said he's on the same page with the National Rifle Association in its opposition to the background check bill and most of the other gun proposals, and believes he has enough votes in the House to defeat changes in gun laws opposed by the NRA.
Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat, has not wholeheartedly embraced new gun control measures; he told the Star Tribune on Monday that any changes would need support from rural lawmakers in order to get his signature.
The House committee chairman, St. Paul Democrat Michael Paymar, said he intends to assemble the best state-level proposals into an umbrella bill likely to be dubbed the "Gun Violence Prevention Act." He said the House is likely to vote on the package later in February.
The gun law push is less active in the Senate, also led by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said votes on any gun legislation would take a back seat to the Legislature's budget.
Besides the background check proposal, lawmakers on Tuesday reviewed a bill to let local police departments order a mental health evaluation on people who apply for the state permit that's required to carry a weapon. Other gun bills include proposals to ban the sale of assault-style automatic rifles and of certain types of ammunition clips.